U.S. to Provide Paralyzed Vets Israeli Robot Legs

Shares of ReWalk Robotics were up more than 85% to $11.12 in Nasdaq late morning trading.

While ReWalk Robotics service engineer Tom Coulter, right, looks on, paralyzed Army veteran Gene Laureano smiles as he walks using a ReWalk device Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Bronx, N.Y.
Mel Evans/AP

ReWalk Robotics shares soared on Thursday after the maker of a robotic exoskeleton that enables paralyzed people to walk won insurance coverage from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA said it would cover the $77,000 cost of the device for some 42,000 U.S. army veterans who were left paralyzed from war injuries, although only a proportion of them would meet the requirements.

The VA’s decision followed petitions by many veterans who cannot afford the cost of the powered exoskeleton called the ReWalk. The apparatus requires specific height and weight requirements and works for paraplegics but not for quadriplegics.

The device was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014 for individuals to use at home, but the cost has kept it out of reach of many. ReWalk Robotics CEO Larry Jasinski said a dozen VA centers are expected to start training staff to provide the system.

“The research support and effort to provide eligible veterans with paralysis an exoskeleton for home use is a historic move on the part of the VA, because it represents a paradigm shift in the approach to rehabilitation for persons with paralysis,” said Dr. Ann Spungen, who led VA research on the system.

Shares of ReWalk, which is based in Yokeneam Ilit, near Haifa, were up more than 85% to $11.12 in Nasdaq late morning trading.

The ReWalk was invented by Israeli entrepreneur Amit Goffer, who was paralyzed in an accident in 1997 and began developing the technology four years later. Several competing products that use similar technology – nicknamed “electronic legs” – are also being tested in U.S. rehab hospitals.

None, including the ReWalk, are fast enough or can be worn long enough to replace wheelchairs. But VA pilot studies found paraplegics who used the exoskeleton as little as four hours a week for three to five months experienced better bowel and bladder function, reduced back pain, improved sleep and less fatigue.

ReWalk said it has evaluated 45 paralyzed veterans who meet the height and weight requirements for the technology, which consists of leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that respond to subtle changes in upper-body movement and shifts in balance.

Former Army Sgt. Terry Hannigan, a 62-year-old paralyzed Vietnam veteran, was the first veteran to get the robotic legs as part of a test of the system.

“It definitely is a show-stopper, especially in the mall with kids. Some say things like ‘Wow, look at Robocop!’ They ask a lot of questions, but I don’t mind,” Hannigan said.

When confined to a wheelchair, Hannigan says, she has to ask people to pass her things that are out of reach. “To be able to hear the conversation, not miss half of what’s being said because it’s over your head, that in itself is a big plus,” she said.